Shawn Lim
Aug 11, 2023

RGA's new leaders on navigating out of tough waters and decentralising creativity

On a recent trip to Singapore as part of their tour of RGA's offices in Asia-Pacific, the agency's new leaders sat down exclusively with Campaign for a wide-ranging conversation on the future of agencies, Cannes and generative AI.

[L-R) Robin Forbes and Tiffany Rolfe.
[L-R) Robin Forbes and Tiffany Rolfe.
The ad market is evolving, and the situation is unprecedented, with various factors impacting the economy. Advertising holding companies have reported weaker organic revenue, raising concerns about marketers' agency spending.  

While some believe it will not lead to significant issues for companies like Interpublic Group (IPG), Omnicom, WPP, and Publicis due to their longstanding industry presence, others see it as a rough spell for big ad powers due to delayed projects and reduced spending in the tech and telecom sectors. 

At IPG's RGA, the latter has impacted the agency, leading to staff reductions and revenue decline, with several clients cutting back on work entrusted to the agency.  

Due to the restructuring efforts, top leaders like global media head Ellie Bamford, global head of content Margo Lowry, and chief marketing officer Ashish Prashar, have left the company. Former chief executive Sean Lyons also defected to Accenture Song. 

To steady the ship, RGA promoted global chief creative officer Tiffany Rolfe to chair and appointed current global client officer Robin Forbes as interim chief executive in early 2023. 

Speaking to Campaign during a trip to Singapore, Forbes and Rolfe put on a united front, sharing that the agency remains committed to delivering impactful work to meet clients' needs amidst the current market and economic conditions. 

Forbes notes that at a macro level, similar economic factors have impacted markets globally, including supply chain disruption, inflation, and technology-based disruptions.  

The economic factors and disruption have seen RGA clients proceeding cautiously due to challenges in various sectors. This caution leads to a desire to do more with less and prioritise efficiency during these difficult times. 

"Different regions face unique circumstances. Digital transformation is a critical focus in Japan, while China emphasises e-commerce and social commerce, leveraging platforms like WeChat," Forbes says. 

"Singapore shares similar conditions and strives for short-term results, seeking our advisory role in real-time reinvention to drive growth through technology and innovation. Australia presents different challenges, with clients concentrating on digital products and experiences amid supply chain disruptions and high inflation. We are actively involved in addressing these needs for growth and efficiency across our significant regional clients." 

Rolfe argues that RGA has 'thrived' in the face of disruption, often driven by technological advancements and the pandemic, affecting people's work and agency-client relationships.  

She acknowledges that the agency is not immune to these challenges, but has embraced them to lead and innovate.  

"Our focus extends beyond introducing new ideas and technologies, such as AI, to rethinking our work processes to cater to the evolving needs of clients and employees, fostering more flexibility," explains Rolfe. 

"Our adaptability comes from a history of being project-based, stemming from our origins as a production company. Clients approach us with various challenges, and we have honed our skills in adapting to diverse requirements." 

The evolving agency model

RGA recognises that its relationship with clients is evolving, and the agency is actively changing its approach and developing new ways of working that better utilise decentralised creativity.  

These new ways of working involve tapping into a decentralised talent pool, redefining team structures, and embracing new talent models. 

Rather than passively responding to economic changes, the agency wants to design different team setups and prioritise technologies proactively. 

"Embracing intentional change has positioned us as leaders in this evolving landscape. While some agencies may attempt to revert to previous norms, we stand firm in our commitment to adapt, defining new models for the future," says Rolfe. 

"Over the past year, our efforts have been geared towards embracing change, with a strong emphasis on becoming more globally connected, catering to the needs of both clients and teams. Leading change is challenging, but we are excited about taking on this responsibility and positively impacting the industry." 

Rolfe believes that adopting a decentralised creativity model will help the agency to embrace new tech, especially with the rise of generative AI.  

While roles might evolve, she says the shift towards AI-generated art opens opportunities for creative individuals who can prompt and generate fresh ideas. 

For example, RGA's designers can now prototype immediately, presenting better concepts to clients and executing projects more efficiently. The agency can explore and unlock creative potentials that were previously untapped to meet the demands of its clients, while fostering an environment of innovation and creativity. 

"We have been utilising AI for an extended period, and our focus is on delivering real value to clients by unlocking new ideas and innovative solutions using these technologies," explains Rolfe. 

"With the ever-increasing complexity of managing brands across various channels and platforms, we are working closely with our clients to create and implement creative ideas while addressing content delivery challenges at scale. Generative AI has proven to be a valuable tool in overcoming pain points and ensuring efficient content management across the diverse landscape of modern platforms." 

Making use of generative AI

While RGA has started using generative AI, the agency is concerned that the tech industry is not catching up fast enough in addressing ethical implications.  

For example, generative AI is going through a moment of intense tension around use, ownership, and royalties as brands and creators use these tools. The ongoing Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike is centred around demands that AI-generated tools like ChatGPT should only be used only as a tool that can help with research or facilitate script ideas, and not as a tool to replace them.

Platforms have also tried to address these issues. Adobe has launched Firefly using a combination of assets, technology, and training data from Adobe and other sources. as well as compensating creators.

To address the ethical implications, the agency has worked closely with lawyers and created ethics handbooks around AI, which have been shared internally and with clients.  

The agency believes the rapidly changing landscape necessitates constant adaptation and innovation, challenging lawyers to determine new ways, not just limitations.  

Education and workshops are also prioritised, with AI pilots conducted across departments to ensure safe access to tools and information sharing.  

"Ensuring ethical practices and addressing biases remain key, particularly in Asia, where unique challenges arise from the broader internet. RGA is dedicated to executing ideas safely and continues to explore AI's potential to credit creators appropriately," says Rolfe. 

"We are currently in discussions with a platform for collaboration, using client projects for beta testing and mutual learning. This partnership allows us to contribute insights while accessing their new features. We have tested ideas with various large platforms, and the outcomes haven't always met expectations. This collaboration is a two-way street, with both sides working together to develop effective client tools." 

Reflection on Cannes

Generative AI sparked extensive discussions at Cannes Lions this year, emphasising reimagining purpose-driven work that surpasses messages or campaigns, aiming to impact planets, communities, healthcare, and economies positively.  

The shift towards purpose-driven work is notable, where authenticity meets business core values, in turn, creating value for clients and brands.   

According to Rolfe, who was at the Croisette with Forbes, RGA's clients' needs and delivering meaningful creativity take precedence over fun side projects.  

Both gave a talk about the agency's beliefs in building brands differently from the traditional logos, taglines, and merchandise approach. Instead, they said RGA focuses on building brands through experiences and across ecosystems, which has become even more relevant in the age of AI, where brands are becoming generative, creating content without direct human approval. 

"Brands are now focused on how technology drives their business and aligns with their direction, fostering more open sharing of information and learning. Embracing opportunities in tech and addressing fears will lead to exciting new work in the coming years," says Rolfe. 

"Regarding metals, we felt positive, especially in the APAC region, where brand design has been a significant focus, resulting in wins for "We Are Warriors" and our work for the Museum of Chinese in Australia. We strategically choose our creative direction to gain acknowledgement and drive innovation."  

Rolfe adds: "Although we missed out on a Grand Prix this year after previous successes with projects for Nike and Reddit, it was a unique year due to shifting creative energies and economic challenges, where we had to put some clients' projects on hold." 

The road ahead

The agency is optimistic about the momentum it is building with its core global clients and regional clients in each market, especially in APAC. 

In Japan, RGA continues to work with brands like Shiseido, and a newer one with Fujitsu. Shanghai offers opportunities with local clients and our ongoing collaboration with Nike.  

The agency is also focused on commerce and exploring promising ventures, noting that Singapore is embracing emerging technology, and Australia's growth is up from 30% last year to this year. RGA invests in its technology hub in Indonesia, which is essential across the global network through its decentralised creativity platform.  

Although the agency does not intend to establish an office in India now, RGA works for clients in countries lacking a physical presence.  

"Our growth has been organic, driven by anchor clients seeking a stronger presence in various markets. While India is not in our immediate plans for next year, we are receptive to future possibilities," explains Forbes. 

"Many brands have access to abundant data, datasets, media platforms, and marketing technology, but capital remains limited. As a result, we find ourselves among other professional service companies and agencies advising clients on prioritising and optimising their spending." 

Forbes adds: "To be competitive in this strategic advisory space, we are developing deeper relationships with marketing tech platforms. Earlier this year, we evolved our marketing sciences capability by incorporating data technology, data sources, and data scientists, resulting in our applied intelligence offering." 


Campaign Asia

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